Social Evolutionism

Basic Premises

Edward B. Tylor

Lewis Henry Morgan

book - Ancient Society

  • Morgan divided the evolution of human culture into the same three basic stages Tylor had suggested (savagery, barbarism, and civilization). But he also subdivided savagery and barbarism into upper, middle, and lower segments.
  • Morgan distinguished these stages of development in terms of technological achievement, and thus each had its identifying benchmarks
  • Middle savagery was marked by the acquisition of a fish diet and the discovery of fire;
  • upper savagery by the bow and arrow;
  • lower barbarism by pottery; middle barbarism by animal domestication and irrigated agriculture;
  • upper barbarism by the manufacture of iron; and
  • Civilization by the phonetic alphabet
  • For Morgan, the cultural features distinguishing these various stages arose from a “few primary germs of thought”- germs that had emerged while humans were still savages and that later developed into the “principle institutions of mankind.”
  • family evolved through six stages -
  1. society began as a “horde living in promiscuity,” with no sexual prohibitions and no real family structure.
  2. In the next stage a group of brothers was married to a group of sisters and brother-sister mating was permitted.
  3. In the third stage, group marriage was practiced, but brothers and sisters were not allowed to mate.
  4. The fourth stage, which supposedly evolved during barbarism, was characterized by a loosely paired male and female who lived with other people.
  5. In the next stage husband-dominant families arose in which the husband could have more than one wife simultaneously.
  6. Finally, the stage of civilization was distinguished by the monogamous family, with just one wife and one husband who were relatively equal in status
  • He blieved - family units became progressively smaller and more self- contained as human society developed. His postulated sequence for the evolution of the family, however, is not supported by the enormous amount of ethnographic data.

Sir James Frazer

Points Of Reaction

Leading Figures

Johann Jacob Bachofen


  • developed a theory of the evolution of kinship systems
  • primitive promiscuity was first characterized by matriarchy and later by patrilineality. (Morgan concurred)

Sir James George Frazer

(1854 – 1873)

  • Frazer was an encyclopedic collector of data (although he never did any fieldwork himself)
  • In his work - The Golden Bough - Frazer summed up this study of magic and religion by stating that “magic came first in men’s minds, then religion, then science, each giving way slowly and incompletely to the other”
  • Frazer’s ideas from The Golden Bough were widely accepted.

Sir John Lubbock


  • staunch pupil of Darwin
  • He coined the terms ‘Paleolithic’ and ‘Neolithic’
  • advanced a gradual scheme for the evolution of religion, summarized in terms of five stages: atheism, nature worship (totemism), shamanism, idolatry, and monotheism

Sir Henry James Sumner Maine


  • Maine argued that the most primitive societies were patriarchal
  • he was not a proponent of unilinear evolution

John F. McLellan


  • His argument began with primitive peoples practicing female infanticide because women did not hunt to support the group. The shortage of women that followed was resolved by the practice of bride capture and fraternal polyandry. These then gave rise to patrilineal descent.
  • McLellan, in his Primitive Marriage, coined the terms ‘exogamy’ and ‘endogamy’.

Lewis Henry Morgan

(1818 – 1881)
Father of American anthropology

  • Adopting Montesquieu’s categories of savagery, barbarism, and civilization, Morgan subdivided the first two categories into three sub-stages (lower, middle, and upper) and gave contemporary ethnographic examples of each stage.
  • Importantly, each stage was characterized by a technological innovation that led to advances in subsistence patterns, family and marriage arrangements and political organization.

Sir Edward Burnett Tylor

(1832 – 1917)
book - Primitive Culture

  • Definition of culture: “Culture or civilization is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”
  • He also elaborated the concept of cultural “survivals.”
  • His major contributions were in the field of religion and mythology, and he cited magic, astrology, and witchcraft as clues to primitive religion.

Key Works

Principal Concepts